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William Shatner on his RT show, the billionaire space race and mortality

The actor drew scrutiny this summer after the Kremlin-backed television channel RT America announced he would host a new talk show for the network.
Image: William Shatner.
William Shatner.Maarten de Boer / NBCUniversal file

In March, William Shatner turned 90, an age when many entertainers are comfortably settled into retirement. But the actor best known for embodying Captain James T. Kirk in the "Star Trek" saga remains productive.

The Quebec-born, Shakespearean-trained icon spent part of the pandemic recording an "autobiographical" spoken-word album called "Bill." He hosts "The UnXplained," a History Channel series that digs into occult phenomena: werewolves, vampires, cults, you name it. He recently jetted to the Bahamas to swim with sharks. He is also a feisty presence on Twitter.

But his persona, built on decades of nostalgia, took a hit this summer after the Kremlin-backed television channel RT America announced he would host a new talk show called "I Don't Understand." U.S. intelligence agencies have described RT America, which broadcasts on cable in the United States, as "Russia's state-run propaganda machine," and the channel is registered as a "foreign agent" with the federal government.

Shatner, for his part, has defended his decision to link himself with RT, saying on Twitter that he did not make the science-themed talk show specifically for the network — "I made a TV program and they bought the distribution rights to it" — and disputing assertions that he would be a "mouthpiece" for the Russian government.

"I Don't Understand" debuted earlier this month amid renewed public attention on UFOs and space travel. In a Zoom conversation Wednesday, he offered his thoughts on those topics, freely alternating between philosophical musings and lighthearted banter. He also talked about how his new talk show wound up on RT America. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NBC News: I know you’re fascinated by mysterious phenomena, so I want to ask you about the Pentagon UFO footage. Do you have a theory about what you’re seeing in those videos?

William Shatner: The little I know about space and the final frontier — I was in a cathedral in Cambridge two or three years ago, and there was sunlight coming through the stained glass windows. In a moment, it caught me: a little flotation of dust. I know somebody [Carl Sagan] said our planet is like a mote of dust in a cathedral, and I saw what they meant. How lonely, and how far away everything is compared to that mote of dust.

It’s impossible, as far as I know, for life to live long enough to come from someplace else to here. It’s tens of thousands of years of time, however you govern time: atomic clock, 24 hours, your heartbeat, the mileage you’re putting on.

I wrote a short story in which people take off to space, and 500 years into the trip they forget where they’re going. Do we remember 100 years ago? How about 2,000 years ago?

It sounds like you believe it would be implausible for intelligent life to travel the equivalent of thousands of years.

Exactly. Tens of thousands of years!

I have another space question.

I’ll answer it just as cleverly as I did the last one. [Laughs.]

We’re talking a day after Jeff Bezos flew to the edge of space and 10 days after Richard Branson went on his own suborbital jaunt. But there’s a divide in the culture: Some people are excited about the new space race, others think billionaires should use their fortunes to fight against economic inequality and Covid-19.

It’s their money. They can do what they want with it.

I know there is an argument to be made about popularizing space travel, and I’ve talked to a lot of travelers to space who are excited to get to Mars. But if any little speck of that mote of dust we were talking about hits your spaceship, it punctures it and then they’ve got to plug it up. If you basically have a flat tire in space, it means you die. It seems to me you’re more likely to die there than on the Hollywood Freeway.

What’s his name [Elon Musk] wants to colonize Mars? That’s ridiculous. It takes a year and a half to get there. People will think it’s like we’re on a trip, on a cruise line. No, man! You’re in zero gravity and it’s hotter than hell and the air is putrid. “Help me, I’m dying, but I’m dying slowly!” What a terrible fate.

I recently watched you in an obscure but interesting Roger Corman movie called “The Intruder,” where you play a racist charlatan who shows up in a small Southern town and stirs up rage over integration. It got me wondering if there are lesser-known movies or shows you’ve done that you think deserve a bigger audience.

It’s a cult favorite, “The Intruder.” But you know, my mind doesn’t go that way. When something is popular, there’s a reason behind it. When we were shooting the film, we were in the midst of what was going on with school integration. People wanted to kill us.

People wanted to kill the cast and crew?

We were in the middle of the schools desegregating, literally right in the middle of it. We shot the movie in the South during some of the most agonizing moments of desegregation.

You’ve drawn criticism for the fact that your new talk show airs on RT America, and I know you’ve said you won’t be a “mouthpiece” for the Russian government. But what would you do if RT tried to exert control over the content of the show?

I wouldn’t do it.

But let me go back. I did a show called “Brown Bag Wine Tasting.” It was a fun show where I walked around with a bag of wine asking people to taste the wine and give me their opinions. Ora TV bought it and sold it.

Ora TV came to me this year and said, “How would you like to do another talk show?” I said, “God, that sounds great. I’d love to do a show called ‘I Don’t Understand.’” They said, “Great. We’ll do 44 half-hours.” [I said,] “44 half-hours! That’s terrific! Here’s some of the subject matter,” and we started working on it.

Then I hear it’s on [RT America]. I’ve never heard of RT America, I don’t know where RT America is, but that’s fine. Then, suddenly, people are saying, "Wow, how can you be on RT?" They’re playing [my] innocuous show which asks, “What is space junk and why is it there? How do I achieve happiness?”

Are you concerned about lending legitimacy to what many consider a propaganda network?

Is it a propaganda network? I don’t know. Is it any more than the BBC or the CBC or the French network or the Japanese network? I don’t know. I’m not the spokesman for RT America. They are who they are. I’m doing an innocuous show about inquiry into arcane pieces of knowledge.

When we last spoke in 2018, you told me about the experience of being misdiagnosed with cancer. We have since lived through a devastating pandemic. Have the events of the last few years changed your perspective on mortality?

You know, at my age, you’re constantly aware of mortality. Any moment of, “Oh, I’m a little dizzy. Am I dying?” It’s an interesting question. [Laughs.]

It’s laughable, in a way, because then I bounce up and here I am talking to you. The question of mortality is always with me. The desire to impart that which I can to my family and thusly, I guess, to anybody else interested is very strong with me.

The story of our life is writ and it takes place and you live through it. It’s circular. It seems that what goes down does come up and what comes up eventually comes down. Taking that into account, my only words for my family and friends is: If it’s bad now, it’ll get better, just wait.